Whales having been much on our minds lately, there was a certain sense of narrative satisfaction when I found the Book of Jonah among one of yesterday’s appointed readings at church.
Jonah is one of the shortest books of the Old Testament, but also one of the most amusing. It’s a little hard on Jonah that he’s become a by-word for bad luck, when in fact his true defining quality is annoyance. He seems pretty pissed off throughout, and it’s hard to blame him…
- God tells him to go to Nineveh (the Middlesborough of its time for filth and degeneracy) and tell the Ninevites that they suck and will be destroyed in forty days.
- Jonah says “Bollocks to that – you’ll go soft and forgive them, as usual, leaving me looking like a ranting fleabitten nutcase. I’m off to Tarshish instead.”
- God says “Tarshish? I don’t think so. Meet my mate the whale.”
- Jonah sits in the whale’s stomach for three days, weighing his chances with the large intestine, but eventually accepts the inevitable.
- The whale hawks Jonah up on the beach, nice and close to Nineveh.
- Jonah goes to Nineveh and, ignoring some choice commentary from his audience regarding the overpowering aroma of curdled krill, preaches doom with the fervour of the recently regurgitated.
- The Ninevites immediately repent (which is where the whole “Middlesborough” analogy falls down).
- Sure enough God forgives them, leaving Jonah looking like a ranting fleabitten nutcase as fire and brimstone obstinately fail to deluge from the sky as advertised.
- Jonah explores new dimensions of irritation as he drags his sorry arse out of town. “For crying out loud, Lord!” he moans, “This is just what I said you’d do. Just kill me now why don’t you?” (Jonah, IV 2)
- Finally, Jonah literally hangs around outside the city for a few days asking God to smite it anyway. Will God cave to the teenage whining? No.
What I find so authentic about Jonah is that he’s just converted and saved a city of 120,000 people, but he’s actually disappointed because they’re not getting wiped out like he said they would. No doubt we all have a little of the Jonah in us. There’s nothing more annoying than when you warn someone of the dire consequences of this or that, and they go and believe you. How much more fun when they scorn your excellent advice and promptly crash and burn, and you finally get to say “I told you so!” Truly there’s a lesson for us all here – principally that you don’t have to be a saint to be a prophet.
That said, some are more Jonah-like than others. Is it mere coincidence that our whale turned up just beside the Houses of Parliament? If it had only occurred to someone to heave Tony over the side, what might not have been revealed to us? For a start, we’d have learnt what hilarious panic noises he makes.
On the other hand, maybe next time it’ll be a school of sharks.
Jonah, yesterday. Over the lips and past the gums, look out stomach - here he comes.